Strange and Beautiful Sorrow

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     One of the most delightful surprises of my summer has been finding and reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton’s lovely modern day fairy tale of a girl born with wings.  Ava Lavender was to others “myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. . . . a monster, a mutation . . . an angel.”  But to herself, “I was just a girl.”

     Through three generations of matriarchy, Walton weaves a tale of mystery, magic and beauty.  Beauregard Roux and Maman leave their home in Normandy to come to America where Beauregard is certain his legendary skills as a phrenologist will soon have the family luxuriating in the gold that covers all of the streets of “Manhatine.”  Unfortunately, Beauregard has missed the big phrenology craze and falls into the river late one night, leaving Maman to care for her two daughters alone.

     Walton’s prose burbles with amusing, drily witty, stories of the characters.

[Maman] hardly made any noise at all.  She rarely did.  In fact, the doctor in the small village of Trouville-sur-Mer who delivered their first child, my grandmother, spent the length of the delivery looking up from his duties just to be sure the mother had not perished during the act.  The silence in the room was so disturbing that when it came time for the birth of their next child — my grant-uncle Rene — the doctor refused at the last minute, leaving Beauregard to run the seventeen kilometers in his stocking feet to the town of Honfelur in a rush to find the nearest midwife.

Image   Honfleur

     Manhatine proves to be a bad decision all the way around as misfortune befalls three of Maman’s four children.  But in time, Maman’s daughter Emilienne Adou Solange Roux grows up and, after falling in love three times before the eve of her nineteenth birthday, marries Connor Lavender (who she does not love) and moves across the country to Seattle.  In Seattle, Emilienne becomes the proprietor of a very successful bakery, Viviane is born, falls in love and does not marry and soon gives birth to Ava, the girl with wings, and her twin brother Henry.

    It’s notable and not surprising that Leslye Walton teaches middle school, because Ava is sort of the ultimate outsider.  Trapped in her house with her mother, her best friend and her 12-foot wing span, Ava does not attend school and can only watch as her peers pass by underneath her window on their way to revelry.  The book jacket profile says that Walton teaches her students “how to read and write and, most important, how to be kind to one another, even on days when they don’t really feel like it.”

    Laura Esquivel, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Isabel Allende are clear influences.  When Viviane is unhappy, no one will buy the bread she makes because it tastes like sorrow.  The ghost of a small girl and a sad man watch over the Lavenders and try to warn them of disaster.  And yet, amid the magic, much like in Love in the Time of Cholera, there is wisdom.

I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped.  It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person.  I collected them:  how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would.

     I enjoyed this book so very much and there are so many avenues for discussion, chief among them the Roux-Lavender women’s propensity to be rendered fools by love and whether the same is true of us all.

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    There are so many possibilities in this book.  FRENCH BAKERY!  And after reading, you may find yourself drawn to something else.  Chocolate mousse, feuilletage, pore belle-Helene, Cheese rolls, brioche, sourdough, scones, whole grain breads, chocolate cake, creme brûlée, napoleons, apple tartes tatins, madeleines, glazed palmiers, cheesecake:  all of these are noted in one two-page span.  I would definitely do a dessert menu with coffee (for Seattle), tea and perhaps a liqueur like Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Champagne with Creme de Cassis.

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    I consulted another of my favorite books, Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, which combines French recipes with a love story, and found my favorite recipe for a French-inspired dessert.

Quick and Dirty Chocolate Souffle Cake

Butter and sugar (for the mold)

7 1/4 oz bittersweet chocolate (65 percent cocoa is ideal)

5 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sugar

a pinch of salt

1 tablespoon flour

Preheat the over to 350.  Lightly butter and sugar a 10 inch ceramic tart mold.  In the top of a double boiler or in the microwave, melt the chocolate with the coffee.  Let cool.

 Separate the eggs — whites into a large mixing bowl, yolks into a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until the mixture is a light lemon yellow.

  Pour the melted chocolate into the egg yolks and quickly which to combine, it will be quite thick.  Add flows.

  In the large bowl, beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold a stiff peak.  Gently fold a third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it.  Then add the chocolate mixture back into the remaining egg whites, folding gently to combine.

   Pour the batter into the mold and bake for 20 minutes.  Touch the center, if it feels reasonably firm, remove from the oven.  If not, give it an extra minute or two but no more.  The cake will wrinkle and fall after you remove it from the oven.  Don’t despair, it’s supposed to.

  Author Leslye Walton Leslye was kind enough to respond to my request for a menu suggestion.  “I’m no cook but I do say macarons are always a must-have snack when reading Ava Lavender!”

  Ahhhhh, macarons.  The very word brings the saliva rushing to my mouth in anticipation of the crunchy, chewy, sweet divine deliciousness that is a French macaron.  I will never forget standing outside Laduree in Paris, drooling over the displays of whipped sugar and tasting my first bite of caramelized salted heaven.  Even the Laduree website looks gorgeous enough to eat.  https://fabricantdedouceurs.laduree.com/en_fr/.  I would never presume to try to bake a macaron myself, but fab fellow blogger The BraveTart doesn’t have any problem with it.  Here’s a link to her step by step instructions.  http://bravetart.com/recipes/Macarons

macarons

  If you do make some, let me know how they turn out.  And thank you again to Leslye for her thoughts.

MUSIC

   You can either do a French blend with a Seattle (Starbucks) coffee house blend or create your own playlist.

Edith Piaf, the “little sparrow” — appropriate for so many reasons

Josephine Baker

Songs about angels:

  1. Angel -Sarah Mclachlan
  2. Calling all Angels by Train
  3. She Talks To Angels by Black Crowes
  4. Earth Angel

You get the general idea.

Au revoir!  Bon Chance!

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OKAY. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

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The Fault in Our Stars was the number one movie at the box office the weekend of June 6-8, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/.  In honor of that, I’m reposting this.

There’s a little movie coming out next weekend.  You may have caught one of the (ahem) few promos for it.  It’s a small, (cough cough), low-budget (more throat-clearing) adaptation of John Green’s modest young adult love story, The Fault in Our Stars.  So before the Hollywood has a chance to ruin this lovely story of two doomed teen-agers sharing one night of love on a final romantic trip to — ah, you thought I was going to say Verona, didn’t you? — Amsterdam, read the durn book people.

If you insist on cheating, here is a link to the movie trailer:  http://youtu.be/_Li8uojsfGc.

The novel is beautiful, in the way only a book about teen-agers in first love (with a touch of osteosarcoma or thyroid cancer with lung mets) can be.  And I’m not giving anything away here.  Hazel Grace, the narrator, tells us on page one that “Cancer is a side effect of dying.  Almost everything is, really.”  Hazel Grace is a courageous, funny, warm, imminently empathetic narrator.  She provides startlingly humorous insights into the world of “cancer perks” for “cancer kids,” the support group happening “literally inside the heart of Jesus,” and the philosophy of living metaphorically.  She addresses her life with black humor that particularly appears when a friend, nurse and/or family member makes a reference such as “I could have died.”

Hazel Grace has a quest involving a book and an author and how can you not love a girl like that?  Augustus Waters meets Hazel during support group and after reading her book, decides to become involved and help make her wish come true.

I’ve written before about the urgency of young love, first love.  Without their youth, Romeo and Juliet would just seem foolish.  But at sixteen, everything, especially love, is literally a matter of life and death.  Pardon me for the use of literally there, Hazel Grace.  But I meant it literally, unlike the number of instances in which the word is incorrectly used as Hazel and Gus enjoy pointing out to one another.

The only way to increase the urgency would be if one of those lovers were about to be married off to a loathsome spouse . . . or dying of a fatal and incurable disease.  And for Hazel and Gus, they are young and in love.  And John Green has just one-upped William Shakespeare.

Image Doesn’t sound like it leaves a whole lot for them to celebrate.  And yet . . .

      And then we were kissing.  My hand let go of the oxygen cart and I reached up for his neck, and he pulled me up by my was it onto my tiptoes.  As his parted lips met mine, I started to feel breathless in a new and fascinating way.  The space around us evaporated, and for a weird moment I really liked my body; this cancer-ruined thing I’d spent years dragging around suddenly seemed worth the struggle, worth the chest tubes and the PICC lines and the ceaseless bodily betrayal of the tumors.

I realized that my eyes were closed and opened them.  Augustus was staring at me, his blue eyes closer to me than they’d ever been, and behind him, a crowd of people three deep had sort of circled around us.  They were angry, I thought Horrified.

. . . And then they started clapping.  All the people, all these adults, just started clapping, and one shouted “Bravo!” in a European accent.  Augustus, smiling, bowed.  Laughing, I curtsied ever so slightly, which was met with another round of applause.

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Augustus and Hazel have a lovely vegetarian meal in Amsterdam.  I am relaying it here.  I don’t have any recipes as yet, but if I can locate any, I will share them.

Champagne

White asparagus with lavender infusion

Dragon Carrot Risotto

Sweet Pea sorbet

Green Garlic Gnocchi with red mustard leaves

Crémeux with passion fruit

MUSIC

Gus and Hazel live in Indianapolis and travel together to Amsterdam.  Given my love of John Mellencamp, I would definitely include his music, most definitely Jack and Diane.  Starry, Starry Night by Don McLean.  I Only Have Eyes for You, by Nat King Cole.  Stardust (by Hobie Carmichael — also a Hoosier).  The Avett Brothers’ music matches perfectly the mood of this book.

So read, enjoy and make sure you finish it sitting in a big, comfy chair with a box of tissues.

Forging Art & History (& A MENU!)

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The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro, takes the true story of the burglary of five paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston and forges it with a fictionalized account of a painter who is challenged to reproduce one of the stolen masterpieces.  Along the way, Ms. Shapiro creates a new Impressionist masterpiece, an affair between Isabella Gardner and a famous painter and alters the architecture of one of America’s best-loved museums.

The novel is well-written and kept me awake finishing it until two in the morning.  The author’s description of the painting process itself was so detailed, I wonder if she is herself an artist.  It was written clearly enough for me to understand and appreciate the enormous amount of time and struggle and talent that is required even though I myself can not draw a crooked line.  Given that, it surprised me that her descriptions of the people, at least the modern ones, were sparse.  Most of the novel is written in first person and that may be one reason.  I knew for example the artist/narrator was “beautiful” and got a “stylish new haircut” but I have no idea what she looked like.  Isabella was more clearly described, even though her descriptions were too, for the most part, in the first person via a series of “letters” written by Isabella to her niece.

The book is about 310 pages long and at page 300 or so, I couldn’t figure out how Ms. Shapiro was going to wrap up all the story lines without a sequel.  And I suppose she did and didn’t.  All in all, it was a fun read, I learned something about a subject I had no knowledge of and the plot was exciting enough to keep me up half the night.  It also had lots of good food.

For a book club menu:

Champagne!  (Champagne was brimming over at nearly every opportunity).  Champagne is a must.

Cashews in the bowl

Grilled cheese.  Get a loaf of nice, whole grain bread (or bake one.  I’m not a baker so I’ll just hop over to Great Harvest).  Melt lots of butter in a pancake pan and toast bread on one side.  Add shredded cheddar, fontina and mozzarella to one slice of bread and when it gets nice and melty, place sliced cherry tomatoes and a couple of fresh basil leaves on the melted cheese.  Top the sandwich then flip it to make it nicely browned.

Mac & Cheese.  There was a nice dinner with a very special macaroni and cheese with organic mushrooms and fancy cheese.  I don’t have a recipe for that but my mom always swore by Kraft Mac & Cheese.  And who doesn’t love orange pasta?

OR

Pad Thai.  Now, if you’re going with the Pad Thai (in lieu of the Mac & Cheese), order out unless you are a thai cooking specialist.  If you are, then your recipe is bound to be better than mine.

Playlist.  The book moves mostly among the modern art scene in Boston.  I’d choose something cool and jazzy like Miles Davis.

The image above is Anders Zorn’s painting entitled “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice.”  Interestingly, the photographs of her later in life resemble Margaret Hamilton in her Miss Gulch costume — chin and all.  For the sake of romanticism, I thought it better to use Mr. Zorn’s painting.

Enjoy!

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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With the grand assurance born of generations of exceptional breeding, Jay Gatsby assures star-struck neighbor that one can, indeed, relive the past. That he, Jay Gatsby, can seduce Daisy Buchanan and spoil her with his ill-gotten gains and marry her, reliving the past and reshaping it to align with his own view of his future.

I went to see Leonardo DiCaprio throw his body and soul into the role of the golden man last Friday, the first day of release for Baz Luhrman’s chaotic carnival of a movie. I loved it. I loved Leonardo’s smile, Carey Mulligan’s languid, limpid expressions, Isla Fisher’s drunken hoyden and Joel Edgerton’s physical and mental meanness. The music — eh. I wasn’t impressed with the “1920’s rap” but the feel of the parties certainly honored Fitzgerald’s writing.

In light of the movie, and perhaps some of the thoughts it gives rise to, I’m updating my earlier review of the book.

I’ve always considered Gatsby to be the great American novel.

If it is the great American novel, what makes it so?

Is it the snapshot of America’s own coming of age, the Roaring Twenties?

It is the purely American, up-by-his-own bootstraps tragic hero whose flaw is his own belief in himself; that American ideal?

Is it the concentration on America’s one true post-Native American, native art form?

My book club’s discussion touched on and argued for each of those distinctions.  And there were a couple of people who believed there was no such thing as the great American novel, or if there were, Gatsby is not it.

I find myself in the other category.  In less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald creates a classic love story, two adulterous relationships, an ill-fated summer fling, a self-made man, a seedy, criminal endeavor and tragedies of failure, loss, death and murder.

Most of all, Fitzgerald created a tragic, optimistically flawed hero, who cannot believe that after all he has done, he will not win.

From Gatsby’s brave pink suit to his glittering palace built to win his one true love, I find the novel more compelling with each read and like Gatsby, end reaching my arms to the green light across the bay for greater understanding, comfort; for the happy ending that won’t come.

My menu suggestions are all champagne based.  Champagne with kiwi rounds (in honor of the green light), champagne-poached chicken breasts (Sorry Myrtle, but I had to go there) on a salad of tender, baby greens with champagne vinaigrette, crackers with carraway seeds (are you seeing a punny pattern?).  And champagne cupcakes …. here’s a recipe:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/champagne-cupcakes-with-italian-buttercream-recipe/index.html.

I found this interesting Salon article: http://www.salon.com/2012/11/08/is_the_great_american_novel_still_relevant/

Perhaps, for me the most compelling image, and one recurring image from the movie that worked perfectly, is that of Jay Gatsby, hand reaching nervously toward the water, toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. His reach, his vision so far beyond his grasp that he doesn’t know how wrong he is.